Tasmania’s first detention centre becomes a hot topic for the citizens of Pontville, Tasmania, especially for Mary, an elderly local Christian woman. Mary initially questions why the town on the outskirts of Hobart must house the mostly male asylum seekers and isn’t afraid to hide her hostility. But when her knitting club donates beanies to the detainees as a gesture of good faith, Mary meets Mohammad, a young Muslim, and together they strike up a new friendship. 

An intimate, touching account of an unlikely friendship.

Pontville is a tiny inland hamlet, a short drive from Hobart. Nestled amongst a setting of gentle hills and paddocks, it has a sleepy grey beauty, and it seems a long way from anywhere. Still, as this new feature documentary from debut filmmaker and occasional journalist Heather Kirkpatrick would have it, what happened in Pontville over the last couple of years became a kind of real-world test case for a national debate. Which is to say that Mary and Mohammad is a movie that assays the asylum seeker/mandatory dentition policy controversy. It can’t be mistaken as anything but an advocate’s film; throughout Kirkpatrick uses the paintings of Ghulam Sakhi Hazara, an Afghan refugee once detained at Portland. They are nightmarish images of cells and wire and they yearn for escape. But any casual expectation that it’s an angry rant is dispelled pretty quickly by its quiet, observational style and its homemade, hand-crafted feel. This is a movie that makes a plea for understanding and it uses a story of a kind of spiritual conversion to do it.

For Kirkpatrick, ignorance seeds the racism she encounters

Kirkpatrick shot most of it and recorded the sound, and served as co-editor, producer, writer and narrator. It seems to have encouraged all here to be intimate and giving. When Kirkpatrick interviews the locals – in their living rooms, on their verandas, on their scratchy lawns – you get more than a glimpse behind what some call in Tasmania, 'the flannelette curtain’. I suspect there’s something nasty in that phrase. But the hand and the voice behind the screen here is gentle and free of rancour. Kirkpatrick isn’t superior. I think her 'primitive’ style affords us a sense of the inner lives of the characters; certainly there is casual racism here, xenophobia, and religious intolerance; but we also get a strong sense of how and why such 'home truths’ are generated. There’s also a lot of decency and compassion.

In broad outline, what happened in Pontville was this: the federal government announced it would construct a temporary dentition centre in the town using a site that was once a military shooting range. (Meanwhile, other more remotely placed detention sites on the mainland would undergo a refit.) The new place in Pontville was big enough to accommodate 400 people – mostly men and most of them Muslims. Kirkpatrick captures the angry disquiet over the plan in a community hall meeting that was perhaps intended to quell fears. There’s a lot of shouting and fierce talk. One woman wants authorities to guarantee her children’s safety. Another imagines a Muslim agenda to 'take over’. Kirkpatrick makes it clear that the folk of Pontville believe they weren’t consulted in the planning process (and this fuels their suspicions).

These dark feelings over the town’s future penetrate the Bridgewater knitting group. Mary, a 71-year-old widow, is a member of this sewing circle, a regular get-together for retirees. Plump, stooped, small, be-spectacled, unassuming, and a dedicated Christian, she’s against the detention centre and opposed the group’s decision to knit beanies for the refugees. She seems sweet; her voice always has a smile in it, even when it’s mouthing something unkind and directed at a group of people whom she knows practically nothing about.

That’s a significant point here. For Kirkpatrick, ignorance seeds the racism she encounters; few of the people offering on-camera opinions appear to know anything material or practical about asylum seekers. Indeed, the film seems a construct in which the filmmaker has folded every myth, every mean-spirited accusation directed at 'boat people’ into its narrative only to find a way to sweep it away with reason and a few handy facts and its own central human drama.

The story of the film is how Mary moves from being a staunch opponent of asylum seekers to her role as friend and advocate for their human rights. It explains this conversion via its portrait of Mary’s friendship with Mohammad, a young father who left his wife and family behind in Pakistan to make the journey to Australia. We first 'meet’ Mohammad via voice-over. (Cameras then and now are not permitted in detention centres, a situation that Kirkpatrick clearly believes encourages unnecessary unease throughout communities in Australia.) A Hazara persecuted by the Taliban, Mohammad saw two of his family killed. Mary is touched by his kindness and strength and the way he suffers his cruel detention with great dignity. For me, the best scene is late in the film is when Mary goes off on an excursion with her pensioners group; this is long after she’s bonded with Mohammad, indeed taken a grandmotherly interest in his life. She listens in silence as her mates pour scorn on Pontville’s asylum seekers. The look of hurt on her face explains everything about who she is, and what she now believes is true.

Late in the movie, Mary tells Kirkpatrick that she couldn’t imagine her 'turnaround’ happening out of some politically motivated conviction. In the film’s very design, it’s clear that Kirkpatrick is dedicated to the belief that the personal is the political; Mary’s change of heart had its start in community activism. Mary meets Mohammad because of her involvement with a friendship network for asylum seekers organised by a young Pontville local called Emily Conolan.

Toward the end of the film, Mohammad is released and the government announces that Pontville is to be closed. Ironically, the locals protest the move; that’s because a more remote area offers little chance for regular community contact. Meanwhile, Mohammad recovers from the trauma of internment and we hear stories of self-harm and suicide. This despair is counter-pointed with scenes of Mohammad smiling, relaxed, working in Mary’s garden.

In its own modest way, Mary and Mohammed is a reminder that this subject matter has been so hardened by realpolitik that its human cost is rarely heard above the squall of warring voices.